Glocalization key to developing Buddhism
‘Buddhism should be approached as Korean studies’
By Chung Ah-young
Whether at the heart of a sprawling metropolis or in the deep woods of a serene mountain setting, the touches of Buddhist culture are evident everywhere in Korea.
Buddhism has weighed on every aspect of Korean life for the past 1,700 years, and still boasts the largest number of believers here than any other religion. It has a dominant presence in the nation’s tangible and intangible cultural assets, epitomizing a historical heritage that greatly influenced the shaping of Korea.
To understand Korean history and culture properly, Buddhism is one of the key factors alongside Confucianism, according to Kim Jong-wook, the newly appointed head of the Korean Buddhist Research Institute of Dongguk University.
“The tradition of Buddhism is very long and it clearly exists today. Without Buddhism, we cannot fully understand Korean history,” Kim said in an interview with The Korea Times.
But Buddhism has hardly received serious attention as an academic subject in the field of Korean studies, a surprising paucity considering its pivotal role in the evolving of the nation, Kim says.
The 51-year-old professor said that he wants to yield a breakthrough for Korean studies by pushing forward Buddhism as part of Korean studies which currently puts more emphasis on modern history, political affairs, economics and Confucianism.
“We have two pillars — Confucianism and Buddhism — when it comes to ideological religions that ruled ancient Korea throughout history. Today Confucianism exists in our customs and memories rather than as a religion. However, Buddhism still has the largest number of believers and presently exists along with us,” he said.
Kim pointed out that Korean studies has been developed by the government as a means of national promotion abroad and thus it lacks a universal value as a complete academic discipline. China, Japan and Korea have complicated historical relations which affect the current political landscape but they have Buddhism and Confucianism in common and use Chinese characters from the past.
To produce a meaningful achievement in studies on Korean Buddhism and its context in international history and culture, Kim stresses a “glocalized” approach, or the pursuit of globalization with concepts based on local considerations.
“Korean studies has been about locality so far but to become a universal academic discipline, it should find ‘glocality.’ Korean studies should seek universal quests not just for itself but also for other Asian regions, and Buddhism will be a bridge among them,” he said.
“We Buddhist scholars also tend to research Buddhism within the context of Korean history but the belief can embrace all of Asia with its universal values. We should approach Buddhism from a broader perceptive. It means we should find glocalism in Buddhism in Korean studies.”
Then what makes Korean Buddhism different and even special? He said that Korean Buddhism has special meaning in that it survived harsh oppression during the Joseon Kingdom (1392-1910).
Though it was widely supported as state ideology during the Goryeo period (918-1392), Buddhism suffered extreme repression during the Joseon era, which lasted for several hundred years when Neo-Confucian ideology dominated as the state ideology.
How could it survive and thrive until today? The professor found its true identity in the process of the ordeal and persecution of Buddhists during that period.
“I think throughout the history of Buddhism, the Joseon Kingdom was the most important and meaningful era because it was loyal to the essence of the religion — salvation. All religions are about salvation.”
The Confucian state treated Buddhist monks who were the elite in the Goryeo Kingdom as the lowest class. However, Joseon’s ideology only served for the man-oriented elite class while Buddhism played a “salvation” role for people who were alienated during the era.
“Many women and lower-class people turned to Buddhism even if it was banned under the government. So the period was one of the most proud histories in Korean Buddhism rather than the time of Silla and Goryeo when Buddhists enjoyed their heyday because they didn’t think much about the salvation of the people,” he said.
“This is a global message which is still valid today. It shows the direction of where the religion should go with people who are sidelined and alienated from the mainstream. That’s the way all the religions should go. We can learn spiritual lessons from the ancient Buddhists from the Joseon Kingdom,” said Kim.
To “glocalize” Buddhism, the institute will publish English dictionaries of Korean Buddhism and an English compendium carrying the essence of Korean Buddhist documents that encompass its history, culture and thoughts throughout its 1,700-year history.
Also, to mark the 50th anniversary of the institute next year, it will hold an international symposium under the theme of “Buddhist Studies as Korean Studies.”
The institute will invite international scholars specializing in Korean studies from Harvard University, UCLA, Toronto University and Hawaii University and discuss the meaning of Buddhist studies as Korean studies and the future landscape of the discipline.
Established in 1962 as an associate institute of Dongguk University, the organization has since researched Buddhist art, cultural heritage and its spiritual culture, and promoted research projects.